Customers Vs Clients

© Neil Turner, July 2013. Fisherman's Walk, Bournemouth.

© Neil Turner, July 2013. Fisherman’s Walk, Bournemouth.

Today is my first proper day back at work since a long overdue holiday. I will write a little more about our time away when I do a further Fujifilm x20 update but in the mean time I am writing a few new lesson plans for my next bout of teaching. The first one that I decided to tackle was about business or, more specifically, the business of editorial and corporate photography. Every single colleague who works in these areas handles their business lives differently but there are a few basic truths that are there for everyone.

What is the difference between a customer and a client?

It’s subtle but it’s important to be able to differentiate between the two, no matter what business you are in. A customer is someone who buys your wares or services. When you go into Tescos or Wal Mart (depending where in the world you are) you pick up a few items, stick them into a basket and pay for them before leaving. You are one of a few thousand people who will do much the same thing in that store on that day. You are, or were, a customer. As a professional photographer I might pick up the odd customer but I don’t have a shop and I don’t get much “passing traffic”.

What I need is clients. A client works with you on a regular basis and there is a definable business relationship between you. They do far more than dropping a print or a JPEG file into a basket. There are, obviously, business models in the photography industry that work exactly that way but it would be tough and rather less than fulfilling if I were to think of the people who pay me merely as ‘customers’. A client needs to nurtured, convinced that they are buying the right services and looked after. I might have twenty clients at any given time and everyone who I deal with is a potential client and not just a customer.

In the field of photography that I love working in long-term symbiotic relationships are what I need. I am happy to say that I first worked with one of my current clients in 1987 and that my next three assignments are all for clients I have had for at least four years. I have a few jobs booked between now and Christmas that have become annual fixtures in the diary and that is a great feeling: clients who come back time-after-time. It’s funny though because whilst shooting a job for a new client a couple of weeks ago I acquired a customer. A corporate executive that I was shooting a portrait of wants to buy a print from the session. I don’t think that he will ever become a client (although I’d love to have his company as one) but he makes a rather useful customer.

So, what is the difference between a customer and a client? Let’s try this;

A customer is someone with whom you trade whereas a client is someone with whom you work.

If you have a definition that would be better in the context of editorial and corporate photography, I’d be very happy to hear it


  1. Banks, for example, have customers – they owe them a limited duty of care. Each has to look out for his or its own interests.

    Lawyers, for example, have clients – they owe their clients a fiduciary duty to do their best for them.


  2. Just been sent this: “A customer is someone who buys something you’ve already made. A client is someone you create something specially for” – and that was from a client of mine!!!


  3. Interesting distinction Neil – ‘everyone I deal with is a potential client’. Students need to hear that and also understand that success is built on repeat business, and the fee for each subsequent job will be linked forever to the quote for that initial job, therefore going in with a low price to secure the client is a bad plan. Taking time to build up strong links with well paying clients really is a more secure place to be than having loads of occasional lowest quote customers.


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